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Farm drought losses point to need of water plan

By: Yakima Herald-Republic Editorial Board

It’s hard to envision, after a rugged winter and amid a reluctant spring: At this time in 2015, we were wishing for a little less sunshine and a lot cooler temperatures. A mild winter and early spring led to a drought declaration in March and water restrictions in the months following. Junior water rights holders had to make excruciating decisions on which crops received water, especially tree fruit. Some private wells dried up in what went down as the hottest year on record in Central Washington, and the agricultural community was warned to expect unprecedented losses.

Now we have an idea of how extensive those losses were.

The state Department of Agriculture has released a report that estimates growers lost $700 million across the state, but that may be just a start; ripple effects may bring to total past $1 billion. Among other factors, some trees haven’t recovered from the drought and aren’t as productive as they were before 2015.

Lack of water doesn’t appear to be a problem this growing season, but it’s prudent to assume that more dry years will hit in the future. State officials are using the report to plan for future drought response. Among the steps are emergency drought permitting, which allows irrigators who get surface water to have access to groundwater, and a drought declaration earlier in the season.

Long-term, this data should buttress the case for the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan, a compromise that aims to combine conservation and new storage to ensure a more reliable water supply for Central Washington. A number of once-competing entities — agriculture, irrigators, the Yakama Nation, fishing interests, environmental groups, and local, county and state governments — have agreed on the plan, with an estimated cost of $4 billion.

Largely missing still is federal involvement, and for that we can thank a bickering Congress. A promising measure sponsored by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., last year won Senate approval for $92 million for a Lake Kachess project. The bill would have authorized the first 10-year phase of a 30-year project, and the money would have come on top of $160 million that the state has promised. Alas, that proposal fell victim to disputes in a House-Senate conference committee.

Cantwell has worked across party lines with 4th District U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, who as a farmer knows well the critical need for water in our agricultural Valley. The state’s report provides stark numbers that buttress the case for the plan, one that given the importance of agriculture to the state’s economy, warrants the support of the entire congressional delegation. The plan builds infrastructure that will last for decades; a $700 million loss, multiplied by drought years that are inevitable down the road, highlight how the integrated plan’s investment will pay off in the future.


* Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Bob Crider and Frank Purdy.


Yakima County Receives Grant from Open Rivers Fund to Remove the Nelson Dam

Today, Yakima County announced it is the recipient of a $75,000 grant from the Open Rivers Fund, a program of Resources Legacy Fund (RLF), supported by a 50th anniversary grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. The funds will assist with the removal of the Nelson Dam, an 8-foot high irrigation diversion dam owned by the City of Yakima on the Naches River.

The Naches is an important salmon bearing river that is the largest tributary of the Yakima River. Sediment has built up for several miles behind Nelson Dam, exacerbating flooding in the area upstream from businesses, homes and roads. Removing Nelson Dam is an essential part of a plan to greatly reduce flood risks and improve public safety during floods.

The Nelson Dam is an 8-foot-high diversion dam that sits just upstream of the city of Yakima on the Naches River in Washington. (Credit: Justin Clifton)

The Nelson Dam is an 8-foot-high diversion dam that sits just upstream of the city of Yakima on the Naches River in Washington. (Credit: Justin Clifton)



Environmental groups request support for Yakima Plan legislation

On July 19, representatives from eight major environmental nonprofits sent the following letter to Washington’s U.S. House of Representatives delegation, urging them to join colleagues already co-sponsoring H.R. 4686, the House version of the Yakima Bill:


Fish Passage Innovations on the Yakima

We’ve blogged about fish passage here in the Yakima Basin before – about how the reservoirs that power our agricultural economy were constructed without passage systems, and the steps the Yakima Plan partners have taken to restore struggling and extirpated species.  Almost a year later, we’ve moved a lot of ground on construction of the $100 million downstream passage facility at Cle Elum Reservoir, but what about upstream passage?  What about the sockeye returning to spawn in the lake?

Cle Elum Dam poses some unique challenges on that front.  At 165-feet high, the dam is too tall and steep to accommodate a traditional fish ladder. The reservoir itself rises and falls throughout the year as the water is tapped for irrigation, another mark against typical ladder systems. The original downstream passage designs incorporated a trap-and-haul facility below the dam, where returning adults would be gathered, moved to a tanker truck, and driven up to the lake.

One new alternative could let the fish move themselves.  It’s called the Whooshh, and its engineers have been working with Yakama Nation Fisheries biologists at Roza Dam all summer, conducting tests to determine its impacts on the health, mortality rates, egg viability and fecundity of spawning salmon.  The Whooshh is a flexible pressurized tube, similar to the type used at drive-up bank windows, capable of transporting fish at speeds of 25 feet per second.  Cle Elum will require a 1100-foot long tube, the largest ever designed by Whooshh Innovations, to span the height of the dam, the length of the spillway, and the seasonal drawdown of the reservoir.

Fish moved via Whooshh expend no energy compared to fish tackling traditional ladders, leaving them with more stored nutrients to put toward egg development.  The Roza Dam trials will help biologists gauge whether the stress of being removed from the water and sped through a tube is more, less or comparable to trap-and-haul techniques.  Until all the numbers are crunched, this is just one possible alternative, but these tests continue to demonstrate the Yakima Plan’s commitment to innovation and best practices!

For more footage of the Roza trials, check out KNDO 23’s piece, or the Department of Ecology’s video.


U.S. Senate Passes Yakima Bill!

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From Left to Right: Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Senator Lisa Murkoswki (R-AK). Photo Courtesy of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee

Yesterday, S. 1694, the Yakima River Basin Water Enhancement Act Phase III of 2015, was unanimously amended to the Energy Policy Modernization Act.  Today, that energy bill passed out of the Senate by a vote of 85 to 12.

What does that mean for the Yakima Plan?  It puts us one step closer to achieving federal authorization and funding for fish passage, irrigation efficiency and habitat protection projects.  It brings the federal government closer to the bar set by the State of Washington in 2013, and it validates the Plan, yet again, as a model for comprehensive water management.


Fish. Families. Farms.
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